In 2007, after three years of renovation, the gallery dedicated to the display of Native American art (Gallery 356) reopened. It features ninety objects that illustrate the distinct cultural, stylistic, and functional aspects of the art created by North American peoples of various regions and time periods. The objects range from the beautifully shaped and finished stone tools known as bannerstones that date back several millennia to a mid-1970s tobacco bag made by the well-known Assiniboine/Sioux beadwork artist Joyce Growing Thunder.
The works on view are drawn from the Metropolitan Museum's holdings and from the well-known American Indian collections of Ralph T. Coe of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Charles and Valerie Diker of New York, among other lenders. The first gift of Native American objects is a group of archaeological ceramic vessels originating in New Madrid County, Missouri, that came to the Museum in 1879. A decade later, the Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments brought many American Indian works of diverse origin into the Museum’s collection. In the late 1970s, the Nelson A. Rockefeller collections were accessioned, forming the basis for the current installation.
The display is organized by region and emphasizes the art of the Great Plains, located in the vast mid-section of North America, and the Northwest Coast, ranging high into the Arctic along the Pacific. The peoples of the Plains, particularly those who lived in the second half of the nineteenth century, have come to embody the image of the American Indian in the popular imagination. That heroic image is illustrated here by various works, including objects of clothing, particularly the impressive, decorated animal skin shirts worn by powerful leaders as expressions of personal experience and special status.
Art of the Great Plains
Two particular works dating to the early 1880s present images from the Great Plains. The first, a book of drawings that was created at the Cheyenne and Arapaho Agency in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), is a chronicle of warrior deeds told through some one hundred drawings. Today the book is known as the Maffet Ledger, named after the editor of the Cheyenne Transporter who was responsible for having the drawings recorded. The primary theme of the book is the triumph of a warrior hero over the enemy, whether Indian or white. There may be as many as thirteen individual hands identifiable among the images, which range from intricately inked and colored depictions to more briefly sketched pencil drawings. The Maffet Ledger remained in the possession of the Maffet family for many years, then belonged to Karen Daniels Petersen, an early authority on Plains Indian drawing, and later to the Rockefeller collection. The drawings on view are rotated periodically.
The second work from the Great Plains is a Cheyenne tipi lining. Four superimposed, parallel rows of multiple images of war deeds adorn the cotton fabric, which is thirteen feet long. Each image tells the individual story of a Cheyenne warrior and his Indian or white enemy or enemies. The warriors are triumphant, well mounted, and fully costumed, some even carry the shield by which a Cheyenne hero can be identified. The human figures are thought to be the work of individual artists, possibly the artist-heroes of the depicted dramas. The liner would have been unfurled along the inside of the tipi to display its many stories. It remains unfinished and does not have the full complement of scenes in each row.
Northwest Coast Art
The section of the gallery displaying Native art of the Northwest Coast includes a red-and-gray crest robe of great size and presence, on loan from the Ralph T. Coe Collection. Northwest Coast crests—totemic emblems of natural and supernatural forces—belong to specific clans, lineages, or persons, and crest robes were worn during ceremonies in which the clan-wearer moved and glittered in the light, with the vivid red patterns flashing as the dancer moved. Made of trade cloth and commercial shell buttons, the robes are colloquially known as "button blankets." With the availability of trade goods, button blankets began to be made during the mid-nineteenth century. The Tsimshian example on view is from British Columbia and dates from this era.
A transformation mask in the form of a whale, with wide open jaws and extended lateral fins, dominates the center of the gallery. Living close to the sea, the peoples of the Northwest Coast are intimately familiar with all sea creatures. Killer whales (orcas) and baleen whales are among the largest and the most feared of sea animals, and at one time became significant elements in the local belief systems. Colorful, fearsome whale masks transformed their human wearers into otherworldly beings for specific roles in the lengthy performance cycles undertaken during the long, dark months of the winter. Carved of wood, whale masks are large and heavy and were worn over the backs of bent-over performers. Activating the mask by means of cords connected head to tail, the wearer manipulated the tail up and down, flapped the lateral fins, and opened and closed the great mouth, all movements mimicking those of swimming whales.
Two vivid Kwakwaka'wakw works from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, are also on view. One is a Crooked Beak of Heaven mask from the Hamatsa Society winter ceremonies. Tlingit and Haida masks, made by carvers further north along the sea coast, are displayed in a wall case nearby. One, probably the work of a Haida artist, is unusual in that its primary material is copper. Copper was much valued among Northwest Coast peoples, and in this instance the incised patterns of killer-whale fins on the cheeks may be a sea association that identifies the copper as wealth from the sea. The large size of the mask, the shape of the ears, and the full-toothed mouth are bearlike features, while the eyes, nose, and volumes of the face appear more human in character. The liberal amount of copper, coupled with the fur and abalone shell in the mask, suggest that it was probably an important crest object. Abalone shell inlay graces other objects on display as well, like the detailed headdress frontlets in the same case.
Smaller-scale works illustrate the command of wood and ivory that the Northwest Coast carvers attained in objects of the most intimate detail. Daggers are topped with carefully carved pommels depicting bears or wolves. Handheld rattles display bird imagery of complex attributes. Round rattles about the size of a human face—with or without human features —are another type shown. A rattle with a decidedly human face, on loan from Charles and Valerie Diker, is particularly compelling. Sharp, high cheekbones give the face a skull-like appearance. The carefully outlined eyes, refined down-turned nose, well-wrought ears, wide mouth full of white teeth, and upright crown of human hair give the whole a singular intensity. The low relief carving on the back of the rattle suggests a date in the late eighteenth century, which would make this one of the earliest extant examples of Northwest Coast carving.
Eastern North America
Wood was also a favored medium of the Native peoples on the eastern side of North America. Examples in the installation range from bowls to war clubs. Northeastern wood objects are smaller, tighter in form, and have more polished surfaces than those found among the wet forests of the Pacific Northwest. The eastern works, of which far fewer remain, are chiefly functional objects elaborated with sculptural details. Of particular note is a ball-headed club from the Great Lakes region. The action end of the wood club is a great ball with a meaningful metal spike at the center, but the ball is clenched in the gaping jaws of a sleek, menacing otter. A well-balanced weapon, it is also a well-balanced work of art.
The Native peoples of the Northeast were the first to have extensive experience with white settlers, and also the first to assimilate outside tastes and to incorporate imported forms into their art. Eclectic vocabularies incorporating native materials—such as birch bark, moose hair embroidery, or porcupine quillwork—and imported forms, such as traveling cases, lidded boxes, and pin cushions, result in works that were highly distinctive for their time and place. By the mid-nineteenth century, the phenomenon was well established, and objects like luxuriously beaded and embroidered pincushions, the work of Huron peoples of Canada, appealed directly to Victorian tastes. Another work on view is a feathered cape from the Great Lakes region. Shaped like a pelerine shoulder covering, the small cape is thickly covered with feathers from a variety of colorful birds. Worked in a carefully symmetrical feathered pattern, the shoulder covering is a flamboyant garment and, although its shape recalls nineteenth-century Euro-American tastes—it appears to have been made for Native use.
Also On View
Other regions of North America are represented by ivory objects from Alaska's St. Lawrence Island and Yup'ik masks from the Kuskokwim River delta; baskets of Chumash and Pomo manufacture from California; Mississippian-period ceramic vessels from Missouri; and Navajo wearing blankets from the Southwest.